It has haunted my imagination for as long as I can remember.

Growing up with movies about the war and communist threat, the propaganda machine never added up. A faceless shadow that stalked a mysterious junglescape never seemed rooted in reality. I doubt a country has ever been through what the Vietnamese have endured. Yet the remarkable people of Vietnam have not only continued to rebuild after nearly 130 years of continuous occupation and conflict, but they warmly welcome visitors back to this intoxicating country. So when my wife and I discussed where we wanted to honeymoon, Vietnam had been a place we were both anxious to unravel, and do so by bike.

We chose the Northwestern Provinces of the country for its remoteness, its history and most importantly, its mountains. We wanted to keep the element of surprise a key component during our 7 day, 700 kilometer odyssey through villages, tea fields and rice paddies. A rough distance of 100km a day leapfrogged us from one Provincial outpost to the next, allowing ourselves the luxury of finding lodging each night in lieu of camping, it was our honeymoon after all!


The Preparation

To satisfy your inner OCD, cycle touring allows for the constant evolution and refinement of your packlist as the tour unfolds. Here is a basic list of what we needed / wanted to bring, but by no means is ever a final draft.

Clothing Pack List

  • 1 pair cycling bibs
  • 1 helmet
  • 2 jerseys
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 packable wind jacket
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 pair cycling shoes
  • 1 pair flipflops
  • 1 cap
  • 1 pair cycling gloves
  • 2 pairs underpants
  • 3 pairs socks
  • 1 pair sunglasses
  • 1 small toiletry kit
  • 1 pair knee warmers

Tool Pack List

  • 1 small first aid kit
  • 1 multi tool w/chainbreaker
  • 1 cable bike lock
  • 2 tire levers
  • 1 small bottle lube
  • 1 patch kit
  • 1 sp. brake pad set
  • 1 sp. derailleur hanger
  • 1 sp. cleat bolt
  • 1 handpump
  • 1 spare chain pin
  • 4 links spare chain
  • 1 sp. shift/brake cable
  • 2 sp. inner tubes
  • 1 sp. tire
  • 1 lighter
  • 1 role all weather tape
  • 5 zip ties
  • 4 large ziplock bags
  • 1 headlamp
  • 1 set bike lights

Extra Items

  • 1 saddle pack
  • 1 handlebar bag
  • 1 Wahoo ELEMNT GPS
  • 1 cell phone
  • 2 bidon bottles
  • 1 DSLR camera
  • 1 18-55mm lens
  • 1 50mm lens
  • 1 small tripod
  • 2 32gb memory cards
  • 1 power adapter
  • 1 phone/gps cable
  • 1 sp. battery pack
  • 1 pack AAA batteries (headlamp)
  • 1 pack babywipes

“Aggressive Comfort” was our goal. We sourced a local tour operator in Hanoi for bike rentals and they conveniently delivered them to our hotel. The touring rigs featured a robust but lightweight aluminum frame, complete with a triple chainset up front and flat bar setup that would keep us comfortable and spinning easily for most of the weeks challenges. As a result, everything had to fit into a saddle pack and handlebar bag. Fortunately this gave us the weight savings needed for the 11,000 meters of elevation we were now facing. We also brought our own saddles, which is a crucial component when you are spending countless hours on the bike.

Now we needed routes. To avoid as much congestion as possible, we hired a taxi to the town of Hoa Binh to escape the metro gravity of Hanoi. With heatmap help from Strava, a 15 year-old Lonely Planet book and a serendipitous meeting this past summer with a touring couple atop Alpe d’Huez (crazy, right?), we managed to cobble together our itinerary based off these routes.


Plotting the Course

Day 1: Hoa Binh to Moc Chau

Day 2: Moc Chau to Son La

Day 3 Vietnam: Son La to Tuan Giao

Day 4 Vietnam: Tuan Giao to Dien Bien Phu

Day 5 Vietnam: Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau

Day 6 Vietnam: Lai Chau to Tam Duong

Day 7 Vietnam: Tam Duong to Lao Cai

Visa’s stamped, bags packed and catsitters hired, the adventure begins!


The Journey

After 4 flights and 24 hours of travel, we slipped into Hanoi under the cover of night. The city asleep, now exhaling the day while shopkeepers began the nightly ritual of scrubbing their parcel of sidewalk from the furious hive of citizens, tourists and scooters that descend daily onto the streets. The next morning, we see this orchestra on full display. I’ve never seen a place that overflows with such noise, color, and energy. Acclimating your senses to the higher frequency of life here is necessary just to walk down the street. Though we were avoiding the most distilled elements of the Vietnamese metropolis while riding, these were consistent themes throughout our tour. The manic honking of buses, cars and scooters, even in the most rural villages, became the soundtrack of our week.

With the pan flat Red River Delta behind us, we arrive in Hoa Binh. Nestled in the foothills of the Song Ma mountain range, our first day will also be our longest and most testing. 115 kilometers and 2400 meters of climbing stand between us and a place to eat and sleep. What we quickly discover by committing to lodging and not camping, is that no matter the circumstance, you need to get to the next village.

The late start to the day not helping matters, we quickly find ourselves racing the sun as we push west deeper into the countryside. 20 km from the next town, the last shards of light vanish over the mountains. Pulling over to the side of the road, we deploy lights and headlamps that I thought were packed out of precaution, but are now essentials. Mesmerized, we follow the sliver of white paint and the glow of the GPS screen, we are now wrapped by night. Exotic noises from just beyond the reach of the headlamps emanate from the bush around us. Exhausted, our imaginations run wild as our legs are fueled only by adrenaline. The mysterious junglescape I had romanticized came rushing back in a very real way. We make our way to Moc Chau around 9PM and find the first guesthouse available. The stress of Day 1 now behind us, we knew if we could get through a day like that, we could handle anything.

Over the next few days, we experienced what can only be described as seismic hospitality. Each village and farmhouse we passed was met with a chorus of “Hellos!” from children and adults. Feeling obliged to respond to each, a twinge of guilt washed over when it was not practical. Exceptions included while eating, drinking, avoiding oncoming traffic, or fearfully trying to escape the off dog who also wanted to express his “hospitality”.

We were extremely fortunate mechanically throughout, and during one of the rare punctures we quickly became the target of the villagers amusement and altruistic excitement. The mundane task of swapping out an inner tube became the communal charge of 3 men who materialized from seemingly nowhere, along with a smattering of women and children looking on. Though we were thankful for their help, the quick fix became anything but. Thanking our new fanclub, we continued on our parade route of Vietnam. The genuine friendliness of everyone we encountered was overwhelming, motivating and powerful. The beauty of the landscape here pales in comparison to its people.

We meandered through vast valleys of rice paddies that defied the contours of nature. Carefully sculpted irrigation channels and delicate tiers of earth reminiscent of a wedding cake in a Dr. Suess book. The ornate geometric swirlings of tea plantations in the high mountain passes are dazzling, leaving you to wonder if they are meant as art or agriculture. But the most amazing sight was that of the children tasked to wrangle water buffalo that dwarfed their masters. It wasn’t uncommon to even see the kids ride their lumbering cohorts down the mountain.

After a few days, we settled into a rhythm. This allowed us to enjoy not only the beautiful, but the bizarre. At the end of a sweltering Day 5, we looked forward to a hotel on the outskirts of a town called Muong Lay. We were uncertain about the existence however of the town itself, as I stumbled on a footnote that a dam could have been constructed, wiping out the town. That did not appear to happen fortunately, but what we found instead was a planned city grid that was utterly deserted except for a few hearty vendors.

Standing between us and our train to Hanoi, was the highest road in Vietnam, Tram Ton Pass. Approaching from the west, we began our 25km / 1,300m assault on the monster early in the day. We knew this would be an all day effort as we snaked our way across the ceiling of the country. Topping out at nearly 2,000 meters, the warm inland air collides with the damp moist weather systems coming from the east.

Typically the summit is shrouded in fog, but we lucked out and stopped to gaze across a skyline of limestone spires surrounding us.  As the wind picked up and we caught our breath in the thinning air, we prepared for the chilly descent to Sapa for lunch. Coasting downhill for the remaining 50km into the border town of Lao Cai, we rehydrated with a few celebratory beers and boarded our overnight train back to the city.

I don’t believe we could have seen Vietnam any other way than by bike. You can appreciate the effort involved in cultivating such a rugged terrain when your own legs need to push through it. Vietnam isn’t perfect, and we are still a long way from understanding the economic and social divides that weigh on the country, but in that mystery I think there is common ground. To experience the voices and smiles of its people are critical to begin putting a face and a name to them all.

What will remain with us long after our tour through these vibrant valleys and lushly carpeted mountains, is the generosity and openness of everyone we met. One of the few things they understood about two odd westerners cycling through their village, was we are just as inspired by the beauty of their country as they are.